A poor diet during pregnancy may have dire implications for the future heart health of your child, suggests new animal research published Sunday in The Journal of Physiology.

Scientists studied the heart health of growing baby baboons whose mothers had been purposefully underfed during their pregnancy. They found that the hearts of baboons born to these mothers differed greatly from those fed a normal diet. Their hearts were generally misshapen, less efficient at pumping blood through each heart chamber and throughout the rest of the body, and appeared to age faster. Worse still, many of these changes could be seen by the time the baboons had reached their fifth birthday, which was the equivalent of a 20-year-old adult human, indicating how lasting the effects of a poor prenatal diet could be.

"Women's health during pregnancy is of fundamental importance to the lifetime health of their babies,” said the study's lead author Dr. Peter Nathanielsz, director of the Wyoming Pregnancy and Life Course Health Center at the University of Wyoming, in a statement. “Society must pay attention to improving women's nutrition before and during pregnancy to prevent these adverse outcomes in babies."

Nathanielsz and his team chose to work with baboons since they’re the animal whose hearts most closely resembles human's, particularly in how they develop over time. This sort of controlled experiment, while able to clearly demonstrate a clear cause-and-effect link between a mother’s diet and her child’s heart health later in life, would be impractical and unethical to perform in people otherwise.

The undernourished baboons were fed a diet that was 30 percent less nutritionally fulfilling than control baboons were, roughly approximating the type of malnourishment that many human mothers unfortunately experience in the poorer areas of the world, even within wealthier countries such as the United States and the UK. The team then analyzed their offsprings’ hearts regularly as they aged using MRI scans.  

According to Nathanielsz, the type of heart changes seen in the animals would undoubtedly amount to a greater risk of chronic health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, in people. Elsewhere, human research has routinely shown that poverty, malnutrition, and poor health are ultimately tied to one another.

By better understanding the exact effects of a mother’s diet on her children’s future heart health, though. Nathanielsz’s team hopes that doctors can someday tailor early life or prenatal interventions to prevent or slow down age-related heart issues in vulnerable children.

Source:  Nathanielsz P and Clarke G, et al. The Journal of Physiology. 2016.